LOS ANGELES – Earlier this season, Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter declared Jeff Carter his best player since the start of training camp.
While his teammates were slow out of the gate, Carter has been on a steady gallop in his first full go-around with L.A. -- and his latest footprints were a natural hat trick in a 5-1 win Monday night against the Nashville Predators.
Carter scored twice in 19 seconds in the third period, capping his fifth career hat trick with a strip of Roman Josi and a breakaway backhand past Pekka Rinne to give him 14 goals in 20 games.
You want efficiency? Carter had three goals on five shots and appears to be in a good place, literally and figuratively, starting his first full season with the Kings.
"It's been good," Carter said. "I feel like everything's back to normal now. I was out here all lockout hanging out with, probably 10 guys. So it was nice to get out and get settled and relax a little bit. I'm comfortable here now. I feel like I'm in a good position and [on] a great team."
The Kings added goals by Mike Richards and Dwight King to equal their highest scoring game this season.
Jonathan Bernier stopped 18 shots to improve to 7-1 against Nashville, which completed its California trip 0-3 with persisting questions about offense and special teams. A late goal by Gabriel Bourque avoided what would have been a League-leading sixth shutout this season.
Nashville has dropped five of six and scored three goals in those five losses. Captain Shea Weber didn't have many answers in a hushed locker room that was closed for an extended time afterward. Coach Barry Trotz eventually emerged and said, "It's sort of been a trip from hell."
"We got to figure stuff out," Weber said. "We got to get back to working hard and do what we can. Obviously, we're not scoring right now. We've got to find a way to do that. We're giving up a lot of goals too. It's the whole game we got to fix."
Carter took a pass from a falling Colin Fraser and deked past Rinne for a 2-0 lead at 4:39, and the breakaway at 4:58 effectively sealed a win. Los Angeles has allowed two third-period goals, one an empty-netter, in the past eight games.
Carter's backhand swipe of a fluttering puck from the left side slipped through the pads of Rinne at 5:28 of the second, with Craig Smith in the penalty box for high sticking. Rinne had to back up to the goal line once the puck got free to Carter, who has 10 goals in 14 career games against Nashville.
"I think he tried to pass that back door and bouncing puck," Rinne said. "Just a bad goal. Terrible goal."
L.A. scored four times on its first nine shots. Its five goals came on a season-low 16 shots.
"Every shot went in," Rinne said. "There's no excuses. They have 10 shots on net at some point and they have four goals. It's just terrible. I have no excuses. It's something that you have to be better in this League if you want to win games."
Penalty killing is a major issue faulty for Nashville, which has allowed nine goals in 17 power-play opportunities the past four games. It has allowed a power play goal in 10 straight road games.
"We're trying to figure that out," Weber said. "We're having extra meetings. We're having more video and we're trying to figure out what's going on and obviously we haven't yet … that's something we've got to battle through and just find a way – determination, blocking shots … all the little things."
The teams exchanged long stretches of sustained pressure in the second and harvested nothing out of it. The Kings spent a lot of time in Nashville's zone yet put a season-low three shots on goal in the period. The Predators came alive at the end of the period but nothing materialized.
L.A. also put a three shots on goal in the first period. Its first came at the 4:34 mark, on a backhand by King to draw sarcastic cheers. Nashville was predictably not much better and put five shots on goal despite having 90 seconds of power-play time.
Trotz said Carter's third goal was the back breaker.
"To me that was game, set, match," Trotz said. "We lost our belief system. [It's] been a rough road trip. We have given up two power play goals per game. We haven't been able to generate enough on offense."
Alec Martinez returned to the lineup from an upper-body injury for L.A.